Jack and Rita Gifford live independently and care for each other. They are part of a growing population navigating the challenges of aging.

Jack Gifford, 85, was one of many recent attendees at the Caregiver University, a one-day seminar for primary caregivers in San Benito County. He and his wife, Rita, 80, are independent and enjoy a robust and active life, despite her Parkinson’s disease and the usual things that come with being octogenarians.

“I don’t consider myself her caregiver,” Gifford said. “Instead I see myself in assisting her in caring for herself.”

Presented by a coalition of advocacy groups at the Hollister Community Center on October 28, the conference focused on a variety of topics including how to recognize signs that a loved one may be experiencing early stages of dementia to taking care of one’s own needs in order to be a better caregiver.

The Giffords are a model of aging gracefully. They recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary and still live in their home, located on five acres between Gilroy and Watsonville. They also own a home on Santa Ana Road and spend a lot of time in San Benito County helping their grandchildren with 4-H projects, county fair activities and attending sporting events.

“We still ask ourselves what we’re going to do when we get old,” Jack Gifford says with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Although Rita’s Parkinson’s diagnosis has slowed her down a bit, the couple say her doctor considers her case one of the slowest progressing ones he’s seen. Her biggest challenge is balance and avoiding the dreaded fall that could lead to a broken hip.

“I don’t have as much energy as I used to,” Rita said. “And it’s frustrating not being able to do all the things I used to do. Now my family barks at me not to do things. I’d like to fly to see relatives and friends, but now it’s a big responsibility to fly; it takes more work than it used to.”

Jack acknowledges that she can be stubborn about using a cane or walker. Last Christmas, he said Rita was carrying a stack of holiday dishes when she slipped and fell amid the shards of broken plates. “She required more than 50 stitches and broke the ball in her shoulder,” he said. “But fortunately she didn’t break a hip.” She got right back up after her surgery and kept moving, a key element of the Giffords’ longevity. “Motion is the lotion for your joints,” Jack said.

The Giffords are part of a larger demographic of an aging population transitioning from independence to assisted living. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, San Benito County is home to approximately 8,000 residents over the age of 65. Since 2010, the percentage of 65 and over residents in San Benito County has jumped from 9.7% to 12.2% and is expected to grow more as baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) enter into their 60s and beyond.

“It’s the fastest growing segment of our population,” said Patsy Pence, an ombudsman with Advocacy Inc., a non-profit group that looks out for the rights of seniors in long-term care facilities. “And of the seniors, the 85+ group is the fastest growing.”

Even for those not moving from their homes to senior communities, people entering their late 70s and 80s face a new reality of daily medications, transportation challenges when they no longer can drive, and the day-to-day tasks of staying healthy. Cooking, for example, is a new skill Jack Gifford has taken upon himself after 60 years of Rita doing most of it.

“We’ve given up sugar, salt and all grains,” he said proudly. “We’re learning that our bodies do not respond well to a lot of the processed foods we’ve eaten for years. Those foods cause inflammation. Now we eat a lot more vegetables. We’re helping each other along this program.”

Pauline Valdivia, Executive Director of Jovenes de Antaño, said they see a rapidly growing need for services that include elder care. Jovenes de Antaño is San Benito County’s senior services hub, providing resources for families facing the challenge of elder care since 1975.

“Seniors are a forgotten part of our community,” Valdivia said. “People are living longer and need services. Sometimes it’s a couple living together, but there are also many seniors that live alone and need help.” Jovenes provides rides for seniors, social activities, and meals.

Presenters from Del Mar Caregiver Resource Center in Santa Cruz addressed the crowd on Saturday and showed slide shows describing dementia-related behavior and tips for finding community resources and support systems.

“We’re here to help and provide many resources for people caring for their loved ones,” said Siing McBroom, ASW, MSW Program Manager/Clinical Supervisor at Del Mar Caregiver Resources Center.

“Acceptance that a loved one may be showing signs of dementia is painful,” said Nina Perales, a licensed clinical social worker with CareMore. “You feel like you don’t have any control over the situation. It’s like a wave, if you’re not looking it can knock you down but if you take it head on, you can feel more powerful and have a sense of control and peace.”

Alan Ritter, former manager at the Hollister Airport, said he and his partner are navigating into old age together. Widowed four months apart about thirteen years ago, the pair have maintained an active life together.

“We were friends in college and after our spouses died, we decided to move in together,” Ritter said. Still independent, Ritter said he is starting to see signs of short-term memory loss in his partner so decided to attend the caregiver seminar.

“It’s always good to get information and see what resources are out there.”

As for the Giffords, Jack said they will continue to live independently, drive and take care of their property for as long as they can. When asked if he’d be willing to be profiled for an article in BenitoLink, he laughed and replied: “Sure, as long as it’s not our obituary!”

FOR MORE INFORMATION: To learn more about resources for seniors and their caregivers, you can contact any one of the following organizations:

  • Jovenes de Antano: 300 West Street, Hollister, CA 95023 ~ (831) 637-9275;
  • Del Mar Caregiver Resource Center/ Health Projects Center:  (831) 459-6639, www.hpcn.org;
  • Advocacy Inc., (831) 636-1638; www.advocacy-inc.org;

Are you taking care of an elderly parent, spouse or other family member or friend? BenitoLink want to hear your story! Please send us your photos and stories or contact us with your phone number and e-mail and we will follow-up.